Monday, September 16, 2019

Deliberately Thinking Structure

I've been working on a Jolie Gentil novella, tentatively called "The Twain Does Meet." I'm shamelessly borrowing Janet Evanovich's phrase and referring to it as a between-the-numbers book. It takes place between books ten and eleven.

Why? By book eleven, Jolie and Scoobie have a set of three-year old twins. I've had a blast adding them to the mix. But I didn't want to include their birth as part of one of one of the mysteries. It siimply seemed that murder and newborns didn't mix.

"The Twain Does Meet" certainly has a lot going on, and some problems to solve. But, no corpse to find on a porch or under a pirate ship.

Since I was doing something a bit different, I spent more time on structuring the story than I usually do. My friend Leigh Michaels had recently sent me a reference to K.M. Weilland's wonderful website, which has many articles on writing. One series deals with structure, and I found it so useful I printed the posts (yes, printed, not just skimmed online).
Books as building blocks.
I found the article on the difference between the inciting event and the key event to be the most useful. I don't always see the distinction in my own writing. I have two distinct story lines in "The Twain Does Meet," and I realized I needed to have separate events for each.

What's the difference between an inciting event and a key event? Think about the first Star Wars film (technically episode IV). The inciting event is Luke's uncle buying the droids. The key event (which changes everything for Luke and propels his future) is the death of his aunt and uncle.

Enough said. You'll have to check out Weilland's site. Do.

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Learn more about Elaine and her writing at

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Thinking Like a Twelve-Year-Old

No, I have not been recently accused of this. I'm doing a Jolie Gentil short story (as yet untitled) that takes place in between books 10 (The Unexpected Resolution) and 11 (Underground in Ocean Alley). Why?

Book 10 sees Jolie and Scoobie getting married and an 11-year old enters their lives in the form of a half brother that Scoobie did not know he had (Terry). Skip forward 3 years and Jolie and Scoobie have 3-year old twins and a now-high-school-age brother with them. That's Underground in Ocean Alley.

I decided not to write the 'big baby event' of the twins' birth as part of a mystery, but I promised readers that they would see that moment in a future story. Of course, a story has to have legs, so there's a lot more involved than that.

However, having already written Terry as a high school age young man, I'm finding it difficult to depict his younger self. Generally my characters advance in age rather than regress.

These are some of the traits and attitudes I'm trying to imbue in 12-year old Terry.
  • Friends, and their opinions, are very important.
  • Sports are the best part of school.
  • Food, lots of it, is always good.
  • It's better to tease than be teased.
  • Waiting for a baby is good, because life will really be different when it arrives.
What have I missed? I'd love your ideas!
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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Learning From Jane Friedman

We learn from many sources, but some are more consistent than others. About 25 years ago, at  a Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana, I heard Jane Friedman speak. At that time she was with Writer's Digest (F&W Media), and had a lot of good info on getting into print. She gave practical advice and suggested other resources so a writer who wanted to publish could learn how to go from novice to published author.

Since then, Jane has left traditional employment and become a publishing guru who understands the nexus of the published word and the digital world. Hers is one of the few blogs I read regularly, and I commend to you her book, The Business of Being a Writer.

Nothing can be published until a writer places her tailbone in a chair and puts solid time into writing and revising. And no one needs to learn intricacies of the publishing world until they finish a good product. However, as you write, you can learn the industry in small doses. Jane Friedman's work is the place to start.
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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Libraries Targeting Children

Chatham PL coffee shop with used books, play area in front
Countless people I know credit their local library with starting their love affair with books. Yes, parents probably read to them and introduced them to the library. But the neat thing was, you could go there on your own and select books yourself.

I grew up one block from the town of Garrett Park, MD, and at that time my siblings and I walked or ran across a big field (now a parking lot) along a well-trod path. Once inside the tiny building (now part of a nursery school) we browsed the shelves.

There's now a much larger Kensington Park library about 1.5 miles down the road, and the former Kensington Noyes Library is a children's library -- to which my sister takes her granddaughter.

Fond as I remain of all those libraries, the best library for children I've been in is the Chatham, Illinois Public Library. Part library, part huge play area, part cafe and used book sales room, and part genealogy room. Oh, and lots of room to do puzzles.

I wish I could show pictures of the dozens upon dozens of children who visit most mornings during the summer, but I would never ask parents to let me put their kids' pictures on the Internet. You'll have to be content with photos of the space itself.

On the left is a main area of activity. The table at the forefront is one on which kids play with cars and trucks. Note the playhouse on the left.

Even on a quiet day, it's busy. To get the photo at left, I had to take several shots. Each time I thought I had one without a child, one would stream into the frame.

On the right (in the same photo) is a smaller play house. Toward the back is one of several book sections.

And the tree? It's a walk-through space, with a toddler slide at the front.

Below, on the right, is the reading cubby, which gives kids a private place to curl up with a book.

While it is certainly used a fair bit, the interactive nature of the place has the kids sometimes too busy to go off by themselves to read.
Book cubby for a quiet space

This summer, the theme of the summer reading program is "a universe of stories." Lots of prizes, many reasons to come to the library to win them -- and see friends. -- Elaine L. Orr --

Toddler Tree Slide
A Universe of Stories

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Resources for Your Writing Business

     I find many authors don’t put on their business cap until they have something to sell. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with that perspective, in fact it’s what I did. 

However, if you do want to start or change careers, you’ll consider such things as who you are writing to, how many books you’ll need to sell at which price to make a certain amount of money, and how to manage the businesses processes.

Maybe you’ll do your own taxes and file a Schedule C. Or should you set up an LLC – limited liability corporation? Don’t ask me, ask your accountant. You need an accountant? Possibly.

To be clear, I do not advocate that we right-brain creative types stop writing and do a lot of left-brain work to establish a business. That can come later, for most of us.

Write that book first.


The Business of Being a Writer, Jane Friedman
Possibly the best overview of what you need to know after you write your book. You get an excellent work at the publishing world, too. Kindle and paperback.

The Indie Author Business Plan
Good overview, with a downloadable workbook. If you like multi-media learning, this is a good place to start.
Kimberly Grabas

7 Elements for a Nonfiction Writer’s Business Plan
An overview that could be helpful whether you write fiction or nonfiction.
A Long-Term View of the Indie Author Business with Liliana Hart
42 minutes, but a good example of building to success in the real world.Hart (who has sold more than 3 million books) also compares Amazon and ibooks – not saying one is better, but discussing differences. Apple has 7 billion devices out there. I learned a lot watching this, especially about the Apple market for audiobooks.
The podcast interview is conducted by author/publisher Joanna Penn.

Tonya Price’s site deals with business aspects of writing. Her book on the writer’s business plans is comprehensive. Just looking at the description gives you a sense of things to consider.

Your tax dollars at work – Small Business Administration overview and links on preparing a business plan. A good reference point, but too much to think about if this is all new to you.

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To learn more about Elaine L. Orr, visit her website,

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Thinking about Our Skills to Write About

We like to play to our strengths. We don't sit around and say, "What am I bad at? I think I'll do that again today."

I certainly don't think I'm the best storyteller around, but you would definitely want to hear my stories more than you'd like to eat my cooking. Or have me clean your house. Or give you driving directions. I could go on.

Image by Angel Nichols.
Recently I thought I would work on a self-help piece, for fun, in between fiction projects. I have a breezy writing style when it comes to how-to writing, and I don't mind making fun of myself. The combination works well in self-help writing, and I used it in a book on caregiving in the 1990s and in some of my books and articles on writing and publishing.

So, what do I know enough about to help someone else who wants to do it? The first thing that popped into my head was "moving." No, not yoga or jogging. Going from home to home.

I didn't plan to move as often as I have, but I've learned how to get organized, pack and unpack, and learn a new town. If I had to pick one word to describe moving success it would be listmaking. And doing the items on the list, of course.

I moved to Iowa because I wanted a lifestyle where I needed less money to live and had more time to write. When people would ask why I picked that state, I'd say, "Cleaner, cheaper, safer, quieter." This is not to insult my native state of Maryland, it's just that housing costs in the DC suburbs are astronomical.

Since moving to Iowa I've married and we've also lived in Indiana (and then to Iowa and back to Indiana) and Illinois. In each place, I moved from apartment to house or house to house. I'm probably certifiable.

Learning the Ropes

As hard as it is to get organized and complete the move itself, diving into a new town is what's challenging. Friends. I need friends.

In my new book, Fitting in After Fifty: to Your New Town, I talk about becoming acquainted with a town and its people in several groupings. You'll want to get to know your neighborhood and the larger community. You'll also want personal friends, maybe even want to date, and perhaps you'll volunteer.

Why the "after 50" in the title? In my humble opinion, it's easier when you're younger. Your job may be welcoming, kids' schools or sports involve meeting other families, and you have more energy. Of course, fifty is the new forty, so I remember having lots of energy at that age. :)

If you move to be near other family or to find an area in which to retire, you have to make your own reasons to meet people.

Getting to Know People in Your Neighborhood

To give you a sense of the kinds of information in the book, here are some ideas for making neighborhood acquaintances:
  • Smile and nod. That gives others an opening, should they want to engage.
  • Be willing to introduce yourself and stick out your hand, but don't be offended if your actions are barely (or not at all) reciprocated.
  • Attend announced events, such as block parties, as well as informal activities, such as rummage sales.
  • Buy what local kids sell – within reason. Some schools still raise money through direct sales (think cookie dough and wrapping paper), while Scouts now tend to set up at local shopping centers.
  • Become aware of local sports teams—school and professional. Sport pride and the weather are neutral topics in grocery store lines, which is where you'll see your neighbors.
  • Ask Suri or Alexa what's going on. I never thought I would talk to a round piece of plastic (I use Amazon's Alexa on an Echo Dot), but these devices (which require an internet connection) are handy for weather, local news, and activities.
Don't get discouraged if you don't have people to do more than nod to after a month. Everyone is busy and your neighbors are probably involved in their jobs and kids. Just keep at it.

Beyond Your Own Block 

I love being in neighborhoods where people are friendly and do things together. However, you can't know how that will work out. And you'll probably want to be involved in the larger community.

Have a look at the chapters in Fitting in After Fifty.

1. Reasons for the Move and Getting Started
2. Deciding How Involved You Want to Be
3. Getting to Know the Immediate Neighborhood or Complex
4. Beyond Your Street or Building
5. Deciding Whether to Volunteer
6. Making Friends or Dating in a New Place
7. Holidays: Do You Stay or Do You Go?
8. What about Major Life Changes?
9. Keeping Those New Friends

Each chapter has a resource listing at the end, mostly links to web articles, since that makes it easy to to go the info mentioned in the ebook. The resources would help the 'movee' as well as others who want to help family or friends learn a new town.

This won't be a book that people pick up to read for fun, but I hope they'll find it when they need it.

Fitting in after Fifty is in Kindle Unlimited. Maybe you'll want to give it to your friends...

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Choices about the Profession for Amateur Sleuths

When I decided to write mystery series with amateur sleuths, I spent time thinking about careers that would put them in contact with a lot of people, provide a flexible schedule, and be interesting to men and women.

I had learned in an earlier stand-alone book that the protagonist couldn't be tied to her career. When would she investigate? I had created a teacher, and then had to have her break her arm so she wasn't in the classroom all the time.

I settled on a real estate appraiser for the Jolie Gentil Jersey shore cozy mysteries and a reporter-turned-gardener for the Iowa River's Edge series -- Melanie. It seems no matter what Jolie and Melanie do, they don't attract many male readers. Or at least, male reviewers. It seems women read male protagonists but men don't often pick up books with female sleuths.

The second question was how much daily life should mix with murder. Readers pick up a cozy in part because of the sleuth's profession. People can relate to bakers, dog walkers, and bookstore clerks. I figured a real estate appraiser was just different enough to be equally interesting.

Most people buy or sell a house at some point, so they would recognize the work without finding it too familiar. And boy, can Jolie get in trouble in a vacant house.

Newspaper reporters are more common in thrillers, less so in cozy mysteries. Melanie didn't last long in that role -- in fact From Newsprint to Footprints opens with her firing.

So, she became a gardener, which happens to be one of my hobbies. Most of us have planted something in the dirt at some point, so I figured readers could also get a sense of satisfaction when plants sprout along with suspects.

I plan to continues the two series and a third, which features a small-town police chief -- the Logland Series. I call that a police procedural with a cozy feel.

Lately, I've done a book a year in each series, but I think readers expect more regular installments. I traced publication dates over the last decade, and realized I did three Jolie books in the first publishing year. I'd written them over several years. I need to pick up the pace. Yikes.
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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Thoughts on Working with a Critique Group

I've benefited greatly from working with other authors through critique groups -- especially the Illinois group I now trade work with. If you don't have access to a group, it's worth thinking about creating one. One with other serious writers.

I suggest starting with one inviolable principle. When discussing someone’s chapter or poem, talk only about the writing, not things that come to mind because you read a piece. 

My twelfth grade English teacher (Ms. Virginia Baker) expressed this perfectly. She was having the class discuss some piece of literature (Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I think), and wanted us to talk only about the story. She said, “I don’t want to hear any I-had-an-uncle-once comments." 

Here are some things to consider as you assess an existing group, or options to consider if you have a role in creating one.


  • Does the group deal with a mix of genres, or only one?

  • Do new members have to ‘audition’ by submitting material, or can they be invited by one or more of the existing members?

  • How often does the group meet? Generally groups that meet more often review less content per meeting.

  • Do they share content electronically (with each member printing other members’ submissions), or does each member bring enough copies of their work to pass to others?

  • Are projects reviewed in advance, or do members read quietly and comment the same night?

  • Are comments provided verbally, in writing, or a mixture?

  • Does the group share work of several people each week/month, or is it one piece of work per session?

  • What are the parameters of comments? Story and characters only? Grammar and style, too?
  • What are the policies about responding to comments? Some groups say a member can only request clarification or respond to a point of information. No debating allowed! Others permit lively give and take, though still shy of arguing. These ground rules need to be clear.

  • If they share a meal, do members agree that meals should cost less than a certain amount?

  • Can members come to meetings if they are not writing steadily? 

There are plenty of “yes, but” rules for any group. For example, someone whose child is getting married in a month may be willing to critique others’ work, but isn’t writing new chapters themselves. The group agrees this is fine, but someone who “never has time to finish a chapter” may be asked to take a break from the group until their writing resumes. 

I’ve never heard of a critique group whose members read aloud. To me, that’s more like a shared reading group. I put a lot of effort into reviewing a project, and need to read it in advance. 

Finally, are there parameters to ask someone to leave the group? If guidelines are established in advance, discussions will be smoother. To me, people would generally only be asked to stop attending if they were rude or didn’t read material. Your group may want different guidance. 

This is a lot to digest. Much easier to be invited into an existing group! However, we writers work by ourselves, and I think it's worth the effort to create an environment for constructive criticism and encouragement. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
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To learn more about Elaine or her writing, visit

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Finishing a Book in Bits and Pieces

At this phase of my life, I am usually a very focused writer. Start a book (with our without some outlining) and keep moving. No so with Final Operation. I started early in the year, and it's the end of May! I've just finished a 52,000 word light mystery, which generally takes me a couple of months to write.

Before I began a (close to) full-time writing career in 2011, I wrote in small chunks -- it was the only way to finish a book, and I wrote several that way. Somehow, my memory worked better when I was younger (however you define the term). Each time I'd dive back into a project I remembered what I'd been writing -- more important, where I was going with it.

Now, if I take a couple we weeks off (as I did for some surgery earlier in the year) I have to reread a few chapters. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised, sometimes I say, "Who wrote this and what was she thinking?" I'm only half kidding.

No, I'm not getting senile. I've decided our brains have an 'almost full' point. We've pour trivia and important material into them for decades, and then the sorting component says the file cabinets are overflowing. Time for a purge of the irrelevant.

Purging is hard, whether with my paper files or my brain. Since I can't force the memories or plot ideas out, I'm going to have to teach my thinking cap to focus 'only' on writing. (And family and friends, of course.)

Now, back to the final edits before the book goes to a proofreader. Keep an eye out for the third book in the Logland mystery series. Final Operation (a police procedural with a cozy feel) will be out June 7th. Scheduled for that day six month ago, because it's my sister Diane's birthday. Family and books.
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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mothers in My Books

Rita Rooney Orr
I don't have enough of them. The strongest is Aunt Madge in the Jolie Gentil series, and you could call her Jolie's Mother-in-Spirit. (Jolie's mom is...problematic and rarely appears in person.)

I have two aunts I was especially close to (Marguerite and Mary Doris), so perhaps that's why Madge seems so real to me.

Why not more moms? I've finally decided that it's in part because my mom is not someone who could be replicated -- not that I base ANY fictional character on ANY people I know. Rita Rooney Orr was strong, nurturing, funny, kind, and uncomplaining. No character I create could even come close.

A new series I'm working on has to involve the main character's mom in some way (for the rest of it to work). I realize I haven't thought through her character well. So, here's a commitment to develop a strong mother in the new series. (Sorry, no hints.)

Happy Mother's Day to all the great women I know.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Organizing for Nonfiction Projects

In fiction, some authors self-identify as detailed outliners (of plot and characters) or pantsers. The latter wing it, at least as they start a book, and maybe all the way through.

I wrote nonfiction for years. I don’t see how it’s possible to write a piece on a period in history or a new manufacturing method without getting organized first. 

Maybe it’s me, but ideas don’t always come in logical order. 

Every project starts with a blank page. My suggestion would be to dash off a few paragraphs or pages to describe your idea – anything to get your first thoughts on paper. Then take some time and organize your thoughts. Here are some things to ask yourself.
  • Who do I want to read what I’m about to write?
  • Is everything I need to know to write this article or book in my head, or do I need to do some more research?
  • If I need to learn more, is the information available by reading, or do I need to talk to some people?
  • What are the most important things (as of now) that I want to say?
  • Does it matter when I finish?
These are just a few starter questions. Believe it or not, the first is the most important. Who you write to (an audience that knows a lot about the topic or a community newspaper) makes all the difference in how you present the article or book. 

Everything from vocabulary to sentence length is determined by your reader base. You don’t have to know how it will vary immediately, but keep the audience in mind. 

Once you’ve thought about these basic questions, make a list of the order in which you want to present information. It won’t be in the exact order at first. 

As you start to write, you can add to the list or move things around. Let’s say your audience is twenty-somethings who grew up using GPS systems. It could be that after you write a few paragraphs about how to  use a map you realize you need to explain what one is, and how there were initially none when pioneers crossed the United States. It’s all about perspective. 

Speaking of maps…The best reason to have a list or more detailed outline is that you’ll have a sense of when to stop writing. Your points should be building to an end, perhaps an important conclusion. Without some advance thinking, how will you know when you get there? 
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Friday, April 19, 2019

Common Questions Authors Get

Every author who gives talks at libraries or speaks to someone thinking about writing gets similar questions. In most cases, I say people should use their best judgment and do what applies best to them. However, there are some common considerations in making those choices.

Should you use a pen name? 
Before he settled on Mark Twain, Samuel Clemons used pseudonyms such as Thomas Jefferson
Snodgrass. I’m glad he settled on Twain. There are reasons to use a pen name—maybe you plan to write fiction and nonfiction, and you don’t want to confuse readers. Maybe you want to write racy sex scenes and you don’t want your boss or grandchildren to know you penned them.

Nora Roberts writes romances with her real name, but she publishes her mysteries as J.D. Robb. Clarity for readers. Do as you want, but if you choose a pen name, make sure it’s unique.

Who copyrights a book? 
When you write a book, you establish your copyright, automatically, according to U.S. Law. The copyright is valid until 90 years after the author's death, and cannot be  renewed. You can choose to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. Check out these fact sheets.

Do you need an ISBN?
Not necessarily, but it helps. Amazon assigns an ASIN to each book, and it has become a commonly accepted book identifier. Other sites (Smashwords for ebooks, Amazon KDP or Barnes and Noble for paperbacks) provide free ISBNs.

I began buying ISBNs as Lifelong Dreams Publishing in 1995. The process is managed by Bowker and means your work is in Books in Print. One costs $125 (!), ten are $295, and one-hundred are $575. Don't spend money you don't have, but buying ten could be a good goal. It may sound flippant to say have a rummage sale to raise $295, but it's worth considering.

Should you get a Library of Congress Preassigned number for paperbacks? 
While buying ten or more ISBNs is optional, doing so is important if you want to sell (or donate) to libraries. Publishers (those who buy ten or more ISBNs) can get a free Library of Congress Preassigned Control Number, (PCN) which helps libraries catalog books.

The PCN program enables the Library of Congress to "assign control numbers in advance of publication to those paperback or hardcover titles that may be added to the library's collections."
Publishers (not authors who buy only one ISBN) apply to participate in the program, and they submit an application for each hard copy (not ebook). The process is seamless – and free.

What is the impact of earning money on taxes or Social Security Income? 
No legal or financial advice here. You do need to declare your book income on taxes. If you collect Social Security at age 62 (or between then and your full retirement age), there are limits to income you can earn without getting your Social Security payments reduced. There is information at or, or you can consult an accountant.

Are family secrets yours to display? 
In a word, no. Not unless you have permission of others involved. If you are the child of a Hollywood star or politician, you could argue that they are public figures so you can expose whatever you want. The fact that your Great Aunt Tillie had a child out of wedlock is none of your business—in terms of publishing it. Good luck getting to know the cousins you just learned about. Any doubts about telling family secrets or using names of real people in your writing, consult a lawyer.

Can you base fiction on real events?
There is certainly true crime writing, and you’ll see disclaimers such as, “Inspired by the events of xxx, but all characters and actions are works of the author’s imagination.”

Ideas pop out of the newspaper every day. One of my books came about because I read that police who seized hydroponic growing equipment turned it over to local schools. That led me to wonder what would happen if seized computers had information hidden on them.

If you can only structure a story based on actual events, or you think of all your characters in terms of people you know, you may be limiting your imagination.

You could also be limiting a character by thinking, “Great Aunt Tillie wouldn’t really do that.” Fictional characters have no boundaries—though they do need to be consistent (most of the time).
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